Ron Cook: Malkin, Letang increase Penguins' heartbeat

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It’s not an exaggeration to suggest the Penguins played a historic game Sunday at Consol Energy Center. They won their franchise record-tying 12th consecutive home game by surviving the Winnipeg Jets, 6-5. Coach Dan Bylsma tied the franchise record with his 232nd career win. It wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring hockey. “We had breakdowns and mistakes in several different areas,” Bylsma said. But the Penguins did what they had to do. They did what good teams do. They found a way to win at less than their best to run their record to a staggering 31-12-1.

But none of that was the big deal Uptown on this winter afternoon.

Evgeni Malkin played for the first time after missing nine games, had two goals and an assist and was a plus-3. Kris Letang played for the first time after missing 10 games and led the Penguins in ice time with 24:31. Brooks Orpik played his fifth consecutive game after missing eight. Rob Scuderi played his fourth game in a row after missing 29.

For the first time in a long time, the Penguins put a team on the ice with recognizable faces and names.

Their team.

“It’s always nice to see guys come back from injuries,” Scuderi said. “But the best thing is going to be when you see us all jell together. That takes some time. I think Kris and I have played a grand total of five periods together. It takes time to develop that chemistry. Conditioning-wise, you feel fine. The timing of the game itself is the toughest thing.”

It’s hard to believe that after watching Malkin for the first time since he struggled to get off the ice Dec. 14 in Detroit, unable to put weight on his left leg. “He was really good,” teammate Matt Niskanen said soon after scoring the winning goal with a wicked slap shot. “He had the puck a lot. He seemed to be dangerous.”

Malkin’s first goal came early in the second period when the Penguins were trailing, 2-0. His second pulled them into a 5-5 tie midway through the third period. He also drew two penalties, the second setting up a power-play goal by linemate James Neal. Malkin and Neal combined for four goals and two assists. Jussi Jokinen — the third member of their line — also had a goal and an assist.

“I’m not sure there are two better at reading off each other and playing with each other,” Bylsma said of Malkin and Neal. “It’s almost immediate, the scoring chances they generate by reading off each other …

“I don’t think you can overlook Jussi as part of that, as well.”

Letang, who came back after an elbow injury, did not have the same impact, although he did have a nice assist on Neal’s power-play goal. It was a tough game for the Penguins defensemen as a group. Orpik had a bad giveaway at the Jets blue line when he slipped and watched Evander Kane turn it into a breakaway goal. Bylsma talked about repeated failures in the team’s defensive zone coverage. The Jets fired 34 shots at goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who played a strong game despite allowing five goals, one in the final seconds of each of the first two periods. He made a “spectacular save” — Bylsma’s words — on a shot by Olli Jokinen as the game ended.

“That’s certainly not the type of game we want to be involved in,” Bylsma said.

The Penguins still are without one key piece — defenseman Paul Martin. He has missed 19 games with a broken leg but is due back later this month. No one on the team gets more meaningful minutes. It doesn’t matter if the Penguins are down a goal late or up a goal, on the power play or on the penalty-kill. Martin is on the ice. His value shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Penguins will celebrate Martin’s return when it happens. For now, they’re just glad that Malkin and Letang are in the lineup.

“We have a good structure here. We’re always going to have a good chance to win because of that,” Scuderi said. “But you can’t teach what those guys have. Their vision, the ability to make guys miss, to open up space for someone else. That’s strictly a feel thing. They have it. That’s why they’re special.”

Malkin, Letang and Martin will have plenty of time to jell with their teammates before the playoffs. Then and only then is when the Penguins will be judged. Come April, no one will remember if the team broke its record for consecutive home wins Jan. 15 by beating the Washington Capitals. No one will remember when Bylsma got his 233rd win to pass Eddie Johnston on the franchise victories list.

It’s all about the postseason.

Getting back Malkin and Letang is an important step along the way.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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